Can PM aide's trip to N Korea help solve the abduction issue?
Is there any chance of finding a toehold to break the long-standing impasse on the problem of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents? The effectiveness of the diplomatic strategy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration is now being tested over the issue.
Isao Iijima, special adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat, who visited North Korea from Tuesday to Friday last week, briefed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after he returned on Saturday about his trip to Pyongyang. Iijima told the chief government spokesman he had held "frank discussions" with senior North Korean officials.
Among them was Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and the country's No 2 leader. During the meetings, Iijima was quoted as saying that Japan "will not move an inch until the abductions involving Japanese citizens are resolved".
His visit to North Korea was presumably on behalf of Abe, who has publicly said the abduction problem "must be absolutely resolved under my Cabinet".
Iijima served as policy secretary for former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and accompanied him on his 2002 and 2004 visits to North Korea. Abe has confidence in Iijima, who has been involved for years in North Korean diplomacy.
In 2008, Pyongyang, in working-level talks between Japan and North Korea, committed to the timely launch of a committee for the reinvestigation of Japanese abductees. North Korea, however, failed to live up to its commitment. In November last year, bilateral discussions resumed for the first time in four years under the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but subsequent sessions have been on hold following the North's test firing of a long-range ballistic missile.
The government has demanded all abductees be returned immediately, full information be disclosed about the abductions, and that all perpetrators be handed over to Japan. There is no telling how Pyongyang will react, as it has reiterated that the abduction issue "has already been resolved".
The Japanese government, for its part, must closely watch Pyongyang's moves and independently develop diplomatic policies toward North Korea.
One concern is the fact that Iijima's surprise visit, which the Japanese government arranged in absolute secrecy, was leaked to the media by North Korea immediately after Iijima arrived in Pyongyang.
While the prime minister declined to comment on Iijima's trip, North Korea treated him very well, as if flaunting his visit, publicising in detail what he did every day. There can be no denying that the trip was exploited by North Korea.
Was Iijima accompanied by an interpreter from Japan? Have records of the content of talks he had with North Korean officials been made available to the Japanese government? Wasn't his visit linked to the issue of auctioning the headquarters building in Tokyo of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon)?
There are many questions like these regarding Iijima's visit.
In giving the green light to Iijima's visit, North Korea may have aimed at probing the internal affairs of the Abe cabinet. At the same time, Pyongyang may have been trying to drive a wedge between Japan, the United States and South Korea, who are set to increase pressure on North Korea.
Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy, who was in Japan last week, said, "We knew that North Korea would eventually shift its strategy to that of seeking engagement in an effort to split us." Japan must not give North Korea even the smallest chance of taking advantage of any development in foreign relations.
The government should redouble efforts to keep international cooperation over North Korea's missile development ambitions intact, while steadily working to resolve the abduction issue.
The Abe administration is urged to produce positive results in addressing these difficult challenges.